What I love about Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series What's 'Real' Yoga?
See all articles in the What's 'Real' Yoga? series here.

Ashtanga practitioner Nick Potter

Ashtanga practitioner Nick Potter

by guest author Nick Potter

Nick Potter is a ‘renew-ability practitioner’ and writer on Re-Be.

His passion for yoga gels well with his interests in positive personal, social and environmental change. He’s practiced Ashtanga yoga regularly since 2005.

He’s also part of the Off the Mat, Into the World NZ & Australia leadership team.

Last week’s article on Why I may never take another yoga class generated some lively discussion.

Some people also felt it was critical of Ashtanga (or to be more precise—Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga in the tradition of Sri K Pattabhi Jois).

Even if that was not intended, I’m wary that it’s all too easy to criticise forms/methods of yoga that are new to us, or differ from our own. I’m more curious about what people love about the method that they practice, and how different methods work for different people.

So in a nutshell, here’s some things I love about Ashtanga. I’ve only been practicing Ashtanga for 5 years, but I’ve noticed many benefits from regular practice.

The sequences

Ashtanga begins with the breath, which connects various sequences of asana together in a set order. I’ve been asked if I get bored of doing the same postures in the same order day after day. Yet the postures are never the same. I never know what I will experience on the mat before I practice. The only thing that remains constant is the focus on the breath.

Repetitive sequences may look limiting from the outside, but I find them enabling. They are like a container that supports me and continues to expand as I expand. Once I learn a sequence, I do not need to think about what is coming next or what I think I might want to do. My mind becomes more still as I just flow from one posture to the next. Outer structure leads to inner freedom.

This is why Ashtanga is often called a moving meditation. The body moves, but the mind becomes more still as it settles in the body and focuses on the breath. A still mind gives the clearest reflections and lets the deepest insights come to light. Regular practice therefore creates a space for deep knowing and understanding to emerge.

I’ve met many postures in my practice that I really didn’t enjoy at first. But I’ve never avoided a posture because it’s difficult, or moved on to one that feels more pleasant. I immerse myself in the experience of whatever I encounter. The postures that have been the most challenging have usually been the biggest teachers. They encourage me confront how I am being each day, and to learn greater acceptance, patience and compassion.

Each sequence of postures are also designed to be “more and more humbling.” They therefore assist people to gradually release their egos (i.e. their limited conceptions/experiences of Self). Some of us are humbled very early in the practice. We may never do many different kinds of asana. Some people may get very far before we meet big challenges. It’s more important how we respond to these challenges than what pose we are doing.

In these ways the practice can be both deeply calming and supportive (making it restorative) and deeply challenging (making it expansive). Although the sequences usually stay the same, teachers also modify the practice to suit students with specific needs (for example people with injuries).

Mysore style

Set sequences also make “Mysore style” practice possible. Unlike most forms of asana practice, Ashtanga does not usually rely on led classes with a teacher guiding people what to do in unison (although these classes still play a useful role). In a Mysore-style class, we follow our own practice and our own breath, and each of us only practices up to a posture that we have been personally given by our teacher.

I find this to be a very empowering and student-centred form of learning. We are given the tools to own our own practice, which we can always do in our own space/time. In a Mysore-style class, we also get lots of individual attention and physical adjustments from our teacher. This allows the teacher to give every student individual support, ensure that they are practicing safely, and to give them new challenges when appropriate.

The lineage / teachers

I also admire my teachers in this tradition. They all have their own unique characters and styles of teaching, but their teaching is always grounded in their own personal experience of yoga. They are dedicated to ongoing practice, learning and sharing their love for this world through yoga. I respect that they often know aspects of the practice that I am yet to understand.

All of my teachers practiced with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (“PJ”) in India, so I am also grateful to him for the practice that he imparted.

PJ was given this practice by the mighty yogi Krishnamacharya. It is sometimes suggested that PJ was given this practice because he was a “skinny Indian boy,” so Ashtanga is therefore most suitable for athletic people. I don’t believe that really does justice to either Krishnamacharya or PJ. It’s only looking at the outer form.

I suspect that PJ was given this practice because Krishnamacharya knew it suited his character and would bring out the essence that shone through him, into the rest of the world. He wasn’t just a young Indian boy. He was a human with a special character. This practice worked for him. He was encouraged to share it, which he did with great devotion.

Will this practice work for everyone? No. Will it work for many people? Yes.

All my teachers have also led me to understand that this practice is not about how far I can physically get into a posture or how many asana I can do. The asana are only tools for travelling “inwards.” PJ was very clear about this too (and the fact that this form of yoga was called Ashtanga yoga—where asana is only 1 of 8 aspects of yoga practice—gives some clues to this).

All my teachers also share an emphasis on great patience and gentleness. Some of the words most often used by my teacher Mike in class are “gently, gently” and “slowly, slowly”. My teacher Peter often remarks that people who push and strive to get far in the physical aspects of this practice usually don’t keep practicing beyond a few years. People that take it slowly, realising that the only place to “get to” is within ourselves, often practice for life. As my teacher Saraswhati says, “The more you try to rush it, the more you will miss what it is actually about…. Everything has its own time”.

Is this ‘real’ yoga?

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense. ~ Rumi

This discussion was first prompted by other articles on what “real” yoga is. So is Ashtanga “real” yoga, or more real than any other form?

These questions miss the point that yoga is an experiential practice. Any concept of what is “real” or “right” are only that—concepts in the mind. Yoga is both a practice and an embodied way of being that we experience directly.

I can only determine if a method of yoga is right for me through practice. My personal experience is that Ashtanga has been, and continues to be, very beneficial. I was in a poor physical, mental and emotional state when I first started practicing. Now life is shining ever more brightly.

To help determine if this form is right for me, I can also ask questions like: through my regular practice of yoga, what is my life becoming beyond the yoga mat…

  • Am I experiencing greater clarity and stillness?
  • Am I more often focused in the present moment?
  • Am I feeling more light-hearted and joyful?
  • Am I behaving more calmly, especially in challenging circumstances?
  • Am I finding it easier to be grounded, even when I am uplifted?
  • Am I feeling more full of life?
  • Am I experiencing greater compassion?
  • Am I appreciating more of the mystery in life?
  • Am I developing understanding who I really am?

Much as I love Ashtanga, I know it’s not for everyone. When people tell me that they’d like to try yoga, I tell them to try as many forms as possible and to find a good teacher. I trust that they will know when they find a form and teacher(s) that suit them. I’m very grateful that Ashtanga has been a powerful practice for me. The more I keep practicing, the more grateful I become for this method and the enormous benefits that it brings.

You can read more about Nick’s experiences of yoga on Re-Be

    Read more: What's 'Real' Yoga?Why I may never take another yoga class – a teacher’s response

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    Comments

    1. says

      nick, it seems i read part? of your article before, but if i had, i must’ve just skimmed it, cause reading today, i notice a lot of great notions, thank you ;-)

      i esp liked, “Repetitive sequences may look limiting from the outside, but I find them enabling. They are like a container that supports me and continues to expand as I expand. Once I learn a sequence, I do not need to think about what is coming next or what I think I might want to do. My mind becomes more still as I just flow from one posture to the next. Outer structure leads to inner freedom…This is why Ashtanga is often called a moving meditation”

      the description fits into an inquiry on meditation i’m starting soon; my first poke at it is a poem on cross country running i’m posting tomorrow; i’m putting a link to this article in it cause i really like the tone and content of this article

      there’s lots more i liked in this article, like “I also admire my teachers in this tradition…their teaching is always grounded in their own personal experience of yoga” and “is Ashtanga “real” yoga, or more real than any other form? These questions miss the point that yoga is an experiential practice.”

      but as you say, “it’s not for everyone” –

      myself, i’m in a long time self-practice, attend a few classes (where i almost always learn something), and feel i’m basically still experimenting

      but again, thank you, for such a well written nicely phrased article

    2. says

      Love this heartfelt and embodied article about your personal experience, Nick. It’s always puzzled me that we even bother about ‘real’-'authentic’-'traditional’ labels – everything I’ve been taught and read and discovered about Yoga points to it being, essentially, a personal experience that each individual must validate for themselves. Thanks for sharing your insight into this process through Ashtanga practice!

    3. says

      An afterthought: I realised I hadn’t mentioned the heart at all in this very brief post. But that’s where the journey inwards leads (and then through the heart into the wider world).

      When the mind becomes still, it rests naturally in the heart. As the heart becomes more open, we experience more of our wholeness.

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